William Shakespeare. Seventeenth-century engraving by Martin Droeshout
To write about Shakespeare is to write about everything. We might adopt the opening lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe”:
Wild air, world-mothering air, Nestling me everywhere
This capacious movement opens up a vista of
This needful, never spent, And nursing element . . .
And so may Shakespeare be compared to the air we breathe. The incalculable number of his phrases and aphorisms that has entered the general vocabulary testifies to a greater truth, that he is now within the fabric of our language. Such is the power and persuasiveness of his work that each day, somewhere in the world, a book is published upon his work or upon his influence.
In 1711 he was described as “the Genius of our Isle,” and the celebration of David Garrick’s “Shakespeare Jubilee” at Stratford in 1769 confirmed his status as “the god of our idolatry.” Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt, all contributed to what became known as “bardolatry.” In the year 2000, Shakespeare was named as the dominant figure in the previous thousand years of English history. The appropriation of Shakespeare as the national genius, therefore, is a striking and significant fact; those who have never read a line of his work consider him to be a token of national consciousness. His being is so fluid that it can acquire the shape of a nation, his personality so little known or understood that it can be endlessly reinterpreted; he has become the “affable familiar ghost” of his sonnet sequence.
The process may be said to begin with Ben Jonson’s remark that “hee was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature.” The interpretation has then run as follows. Shakespeare was not overwhelmed by any sense of his own importance. Shakespeare was not self-obsessed. He was not pretentious. It is so benevolent an image that it has since become that which the English wish to form of all their writers. Elements of his biography are then adduced. The fact that he possessed “small Latin and less Greek,” falsely interpreted as an insult on Jonson’s part, has been used to suggest that he was not in any sense an intellectual; this distrust of intellectualism runs very deep within the English sensibility. The evidence that he played no part in the publication of his plays has led to the supposition that he did not take his work in the theatre very “seriously”—that he was not, in other words, in love with his own writing. The possibility that this negligence might be a token of supreme confidence has not really been considered. Shakespeare is fixed forever in the image of modesty and self-effacement, thus embodying or representing the highest virtues to which English writers can aspire.
The evidence that he collaborated with other dramatists on an ad hoc basis, even at the very end of his career, has in turn lent weight to the depiction of him as supremely pragmatic; the image of the writer as workman, labouring in shifts to produce masterpieces, has great appeal to a native sensibility that always eschews the theoretical for the practical. The fact that the dramatist also earned a great deal of money, and that he was on a small scale a successful speculator, affords equivalent satisfaction.
Yet Ben Jonson’s words are also open to another interpretation. “Open” itself, as a description of Shakespeare, is infinitely interpretable. What Jonson seems to have meant by his “open and free nature” is a sensibility alert and responsive to other temperaments. The fact that it can also imply sincerity and artlessness serves only to confirm the impression of Shakespeare as candid, straightforward and affable. Yet it ought of course to be remembered that Shakespeare was an actor before he became a dramatist, and that he remained an actor for much of his working life. It may be possible to counterfeit openness. He may have been “free” in his nature, too, because he secretly realized that his genius was inexhaustible.
All the elements of Shakespeare’s life seem to come together within his drama. The folk-tales of his Warwickshire childhood and his schoolboy reading of Latin literature, for example, combine in his creation of classical enchantments. But his biography provides other conclusions. The “missing years,” when he may have been a tutor in a recusant household, contain the mystery without which no life of a writer is complete. His journey to London and his employment as an actor prepared him for the hard and raucous business of the stage. His early success as a dramatist, far eclipsing any reputation as an actor, directly resulted from his ability to please the crowd. But even though he never stopped writing for that many-headed hydra, he had aspirations towards gentility and coveted his own coat of arms; he was also a successful businessman, who owned property in both London and Stratford. He can never be fully identified with either place, and his hovering between two worlds seems wholly appropriate in a man of such equivocal personality.
That is why there has been endless speculation about the religion which the playwright espoused; the evidence suggests that his father was a Roman Catholic, and that as a result Shakespeare was brought up in a recusant household while outwardly assenting to the creed of the reformed Protestant Church. It is perhaps worth noting that, in contrast to his contemporary Marlowe or to the Jacobean playwrights, Shakespeare never indulged in “Catholic-baiting.” The representatives of the Roman faith are generally presented in his drama as well-meaning, if sometimes ineffectual, figures. Intriguingly, he also takes two cautious dips into the malarial marshes of dogma. In Henry IV Part One Falstaff jokes with Prince Hal, declaring that he will never be saved if merit be the condition for salvation; in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Princess of France teasingly reproaches a forester for suggesting that her beauty, being a merit, will save her. Both examples clearly refer to the misconception, popular among Protestants of the time, that Catholics believed humankind was saved by its own virtues. The bantering tone, all the more remarkable given the religious tensions of the period, suggests either that Shakespeare took a light view of religious dissension, or that he was indulging in the Persian habit of taqqiyah, the perverse pleasure derived from colluding with one’s oppressors. In any case, Shakespeare’s unwillingness to invoke either anti-Roman rhetoric or Protestant theological prejudice must surely lend weight to the “recusant” theory of his origins.
The childhood dissimulation, if such it was, may then have had a profound effect upon the burgeoning dramatist. To utter all the phrases of religious orthodoxy, and to believe none of them, would emphasise both the power and the hollowness of words. To be suspended between two worlds, between seeming and being, would enhance any vision of existence as a stage. To hold secretly to a persecuted faith would be a hard lesson in disguising; to be “of an open and free nature” might then paradoxically become an act of concealment. It adds lustre, in any case, to the supposed mystery or impenetrability of Shakespeare’s character; it was the duty of every English Catholic to remain invisible in order to keep his or her faith inviolate.
All this may be idle supposition, however, and no more than a winter’s tale to satisfy the native appetite for anecdote and biographical speculation. It is more just, and easier of proof, to suggest that the dramatist’s “open” sensibility afforded him access to the wealth of English culture before the Reformation; the mysteries and miracles were a living part of his linguistic and theatrical inheritance. In the ritual drama of his last plays he even seems to mimic, or adopt the postures of, the Catholic Mass.
Ben Jonson also suggested the extent of Shakespeare’s facility in his remark that “I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing, (whatsoever he penned), hee never blotted out line.” Jonson was not necessarily impressed by this facility—“would he had blotted a thousand”—but subsequent commentators have interpreted that easy grace as the token of genius or inspiration. Shakespeare did not know where the words came from; he knew only that they came. By a subtle transition he then became “fancy’s child” or even nature’s child, warbling “his native wood-notes wild,” wherein he became aligned with the pastoral dream of England. His fluency can also be seen as an aspect of his “open” nature, since he became susceptible to the slightest inflection of the language; rare combinations and congregations of words emerged in the process, so that Shakespeare becomes a principle of organisation. It is well known that he depended upon the plots, and even the words, of others; he lifted passages from North and borrowed images from Ovid. There is hardly a play of his which is not established upon some earlier source, historical or dramatic, so that he corresponds to the English archetype; he seems most original when he borrows most freely. Like the language and the nation itself he is altogether receptive, taking up external or foreign constituents and moulding them instinctively to his purpose. This may on occasions become a cause of ambiguity and, as the clown admits in As You Like It, “the truest poetrie is the most faining.” The remark is amplified by Olivia in Twelfth Night:
VIOLA: Alas, I tooke great paines to studie it, and ’tis Poeticall.
OLIVIA: It is the more like to be feigned, I pray you keep it in.
Yet the richness and elaboration which these borrowed words disclose are all Shakespeare. Once more the alchemical analogy, in which the process of transformation is as significant as any product of it, seems appropriate. His education at the grammar school in Stratford led him towards Virgil and Erasmus, Horace and Ovid; despite Jonson’s remark about his “small Latin,” he also knew Terence and Plautus and Seneca, from whose dramas he variously borrowed. It is also appropriate that, in an age of cultural transmission from Europe to England, Shakespeare should rely heavily upon a number of translations—among them North’s Plutarch, Chapman’s Homer and Golding’s Ovid. He translated the translations, and rendered them original again.
It has been said of Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece that “in a poem derived mainly from Livy and an annotated edition of Ovid, we have in one stanza echoes from two poems of Ovid, a Biblical parable and the marginal note on it, and possibly from Juvenal’s description of the miseries of old age. It is probable that Shakespeare, here and elsewhere, consulted the Adagia of Erasmus.”1 This is not to mention Shakespeare’s scattered and forgotten reading. Even if the materials were not original, however, their combination was new and surprising. That was once itself the definition of great art. But Shakespeare performed a different miracle. In his act of remembering and restoration, all the resources of his imagination clustered around the words and images so that they were immeasurably strengthened and deepened; they became echoic with past and present life, instinct with powerful intuition which is the verbal equivalent of feeling, at once startlingly new and hauntingly familiar. That is why they resist interpretation or, rather, why they are open to innumerable interpretations: meaning is suspended, or exists only in the forceful interplay of difference. It is as if we were gazing upon language in the act of expressing itself.
In this process of retrieval and recapitulation, Shakespeare effortlessly and inevitably refined many English archetypes. More than any other dramatist, he is the poet of dreams and visions. In the island of ghosts and spirits, according to the ancient topographers, he summons up Ariel and Titania, Oberon and the witches of Macbeth; ghosts wander through his tragedies and histories and his last plays are surrounded by visionary enchantments. His characters, in extremity, see humankind as an hallucination or phantasm where “Life’s but a walking Shadow”; it is the melancholy vision of the land lost in mist, populated by what Addison described as Shakespeare’s “Ghosts, Faeries, Witches and the like imaginary Persons” and addressed to an English race which is “naturally Fanciful” and “disposed to Gloominess and Melancholy of Temper.” Many of his plays are crowned with melancholy endings, followed of course by the jig of the actors. The most powerful passages of Shakespearian verse flow with the music of loss or transience:
These our actors, (As I foretold you) were all Spirits, and Are melted into Ayre, into thin Ayre . . .
The qualities of the English imagination are everywhere apparent in Shakespearian drama, but in so rare and refined a form that they often pass unrecognised or appear under the general rubric of “Shakespearian” effects. It says much about the antiquarian persuasion of the English genius, for example, that all of the plays set in England itself are also set in the past. The early sequence of the history plays represents the first serious and prolonged attempt to introduce the English chronicles to the stage; in a nation (or city) obsessed with its past, they proved instantly popular. Shakespeare had divined the native mood, and expressed a genuine native spirit, in dramas which reflect the bloodthirstiness and disparagement of death commonly associated with the English. They are in part designed to legitimise the dynasty of the Tudors, and thus to bring a political interpretation to bear upon English history, but they are also filled with an egalitarian spirit in the exploits of Pistol and Mistress Quickly. Shakespeare is aware of the lurking and ominous “mob,” a threatening force in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, but as a naturalised Londoner he could not help but be awed by the power of popular feeling. When the opening line of Henry V’s speech, “Once more unto the breach, deare friends, once more,” is echoed or parodied by Bardolfe’s “On, on, on, on, on, to the breach, to the breach” we know that the “low” characters may use a “low” language but that they can still plainly be heard.
The antiquarian disposition itself is not of course unique to Shakespeare, although it has readily been associated with his name. Almost all of Charles Dickens’s and George Eliot’s novels, for example, are set in the past—generally some thirty or forty years before the time of their composition—and in the twenty-first century there has been a vast resurgence of interest in historical fiction. It is a constant tendency of the English imagination. In the case of Dickens his preoccupation with his own past is the source or root of his genuine interest in the historical past. Might the same be surmised of Shakespeare?
When Shakespeare reached towards the more remote past, too, he re-created the English myths of Lear and Cymbeline which had previously lingered in the pages of old romances. But there are formal, as well as thematic, associations. In the simplicity of King Lear, in its pure and unattenuated beat of doom, it is possible to glimpse the outlines of the medieval morality plays in which the individual man upon the earth, or Everyman, submits himself to the divine will.
The exemplary force of saints’ lives, particularly those female saints who played so large a role in Anglo-Saxon spirituality, lies behind the sufferings of Isabella in Measure for Measure, of Marina in Pericles, of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. The history plays are themselves a secular re-enactment of the mystery plays which, with their ritual and pageantry, satisfied the public appetite for spectacle. Shakespeare’s debt to medieval drama is various and profound. His clowns are latter-day lords of misrule, and Richard III a reincarnated Vice in another costume. How else may we interpret or explain the effective if crude sensationalism of the plays, early and late, except as the affirmation of a native form or spirit? The severed heads of the history plays—enter “the Queene with Suffolkes head” in the second part of Henry VI—converse with the severed head of Cloten in Cymbeline, while Tamora feasts upon the flesh of her children in Titus Andronicus . It has often been remarked that there is a vast disparity between the melodrama of Shakespeare’s plots and the miracle of his language. The two elements can be reconciled only in the desire of an English audience for ornate effectiveness. The equivalence of plangent lyricism and strident stage action may be repugnant to the scholar or sensitive critic, but not to anyone who understands the native appetite for variety and display. The Shakespearian tradition is part of a more general consciousness.
That is why the sea flows everywhere in his drama. It is the key image uniting the language of Shakespeare’s first play, the “wilde Ocean” in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, to the wilder mysteries of The Tempest. There are six references to the sea in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but some thirty-two in The Tempest where the sea has an actual and mythical presence throughout the drama. The cold unruly sea of the Anglo-Saxon imagination is so pervasive in the plays of Shakespeare that it seems to break and dissolve into overwhelming mist and storm. Every play, including The Merry Wives of Windsor and the pastoral comedies, includes a reference to the sea; it is employed literally and metaphorically, with the “wild sea of my conscience” and “an Ocean of salt tears” flowing within the “sea in a stiff tempest” and the “sea, mounting to the welkin’s cheek.” Many of Shakespeare’s characters compare themselves with the sea, troubled by sighs and tears. The ocean itself is wide and wild, and within its depths many may suffer “a sea-change.” There are tempests and howling winds upon the face of the deep; there are rocks and sands and tides to mock the purposes of men. We “float upon a wilde and violent Sea”; with these words the Scottish thane Ross in Macbeth is united with the “Seafarer” of the Old English poem. Shakespeare himself may never have seen the sea, but his language is permeated by its presence.
There is another aspect of Shakespeare’s art which has always been considered characteristic both of him and of the native tradition from which he springs. It lies in his mingling “high” and “low,” king and fool, prince and gravedigger, commander and soldier, scholar and buffoon. He ignores the “unities” as described by Aristotle and other classical sources, in favour of a “mixed” or “mungrell” mode inherited directly from the medieval drama. Samuel Johnson expressed it well in the preface to his edition of Shakespeare: “Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination.” His plays are as various as consciousness itself, fluently moving from farce to pathos, comedy to tragedy, while all the time shifting form from theatrical pageant to intense soliloquy. No mood is maintained for very long; all is variety and process with a fluidity and mobility which, as Johnson suggests, resemble life itself. The apparent death of Juliet is succeeded by a conversation between three mirthful musicians eager for their dinner and unwilling to play “some merie dump.” A conversation between Henry IV and the Earl of Warwick, on high matters of state, is quickly followed by the entrance of Justice Shallow and by a long farcical scene:
KING: I will take your counsaile, And were these inward warres once out of hand, We would (deare Lords) vnto the holy land.
SHALLOW: Come on, come on, give me your hand sir, giue me your hand sir.
Here the contrast between verse and prose is an apt token of the larger contrasts within the play itself; the pressure of Shakespeare’s imagination can be measured in the repetition of “hand” in both passages, as if the elementary prose sprang naturally and inevitably from high poetry. This is one of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s art—that high and tragic matters evoke low and farcical conclusions, almost as a principle of life itself. The same sudden transition occurs in the same play, the second part of Henry IV, where the consonance of sound between “die” and “pie” fashions a memorable moment:
KING: But beare me to that chamber, there ile lie, In that Ierusalem shall Harry die.
SHALLOW: By cock and pie, you shal not away to night, what Dauy I say?
Poetry must give way to prose, and kings to clowns. Language itself may bear the burden of these changes:
IUSTICE: There is not a white haire in your face, but should haue his effect of grauity.
FALSTAFF: His effect of grauy, grauie, grauie.
In Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary gravity is followed by gravy, also, with the same quotation from the second part of Henry IV (mistakenly marked by Johnson as from the first part). But if language performs its own tricks, of all writers Shakespeare heard them most clearly. The heterogeneity of the native tongue, compounded of so many sources and influences, seems in itself to create his heterogeneous sensibility. We cannot disinter language from consciousness, or speech from behaviour; all are of a piece. It is the imagination itself. Yet sometimes we seem to reach the limit of language:
HAMLET: You cannot Sir take from mee any thing that I will more willingly part withall: except my life, my life, my life.
Shakespeare often uses these triple repetitions to suggest distraction or emptiness; it is a way of continuing the sound without any formal sense, and finds its apotheosis when Hamlet does indeed part with his life:
HAMLET: . . . the rest is silence. O, o, o, o
It anticipates Lear’s own death scene:
Neuer, neuer, neuer, pray you vndo This button, thanke you sir, O, o, o, o
where language itself has a dying fall.
There are two scenes, in Hamlet and King Lear respectively, which have by common consent become representative of Shakespeare’s hybrid art. One concerns the dialogue between Hamlet and the “two Clownes” who are also sextons. One clown sings as he throws up the skulls from an open grave meant for Ophelia, and this joyfulness in the face of death becomes the occasion for Hamlet’s aspersions upon human destiny. “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till a find it stopping a bunghole?” In an earlier passage he had complained “that the toe of the pesant comes so neere the heele of the Courtier he galls his kybe”—he chafes his heel. This is of course precisely the effect of Shakespeare’s own dramaturgy where a scene at court is swiftly succeeded by a scene among fools. Shakespeare set the context for the appreciation of his own work, where what is most artificial can be deemed natural and true.
The second example of this hybrid art concerns Lear and his Fool in the storm, where Shakespeare combines the foolishness of the once great king with the mad wisdom of his jester. Their actions and language have been blamed for their excess; Tolstoy in particular accused Shakespeare of grandiloquence and bombast. In his essay upon King Lear Tolstoy concluded that the play had no real meaning—or, rather, that it was devoid of religious consciousness or spiritual consolation. Tolstoy also accused Shakespeare of inelegant arbitrariness; he saw no order in the storm scene, for example. But there can be little doubt that Shakespeare would have delighted in the accusation. In the same essay Tolstoy concluded that the condition of great art was “Sincerity, i.e. that the author should himself keenly feel what he expresses. ” Yet Shakespeare “feels” only through the medium of contrast, just as he holds no settled opinion except within the play of oppositions. Lear cannot be imagined without the Fool any more than the Fool can be conceived without the presence of Lear. Just as their language is made out of opposition, so they are significant only in terms of their differences. In the dramatic re-enactment of character, “sincerity” is not an issue. To be merely sincere is to be incomplete. For a narrative to be animated by one passion or single theory, for a play to aspire to one form, for a novel to seek integrity and unity of design—all are in pursuit of a false principle.
We are entering here a highly charged and rarefied area of the English imagination, which can only be fully understood by example. If we turn to Matthew Arnold for guidance, we will find conclusions which were generally accepted throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: “No people,” he wrote, “are so shy, so self-conscious, so embarrassed as the English, because two natures are mixed in them, and natures which pull them in such different ways.” He is alluding to the mingling of the Celtic and Germanic inheritance, to which he adds the observation that the English have “no fixed, fatal, spiritual centre of gravity.” We may recall here Tolstoy’s remark that Shakespeare lacked a religious sensibility; the dramatist did indeed play “grauity” against “grauy.” In the nineteenth century it seemed that “we have Germanism enough to make us Philistines, and Normanism enough to make us imperious, and Celtism enough to make us self-conscious and awkward; but German fidelity to Nature, and Latin precision and clear reason, and Celtic quick-wittedness and spirituality, we fall short of.” Arnold’s vocabulary may not be as persuasive in the twenty-first century as it seemed to his contemporaries, but he cannot be faulted for his generalisations upon “this mixed constitution of our nature.” The mixture grows every day, much to the delight of those who understand the inclusive nature of Englishness itself. Its name, once more, is Shakespeare.